Tag Archives: Culture

The missing R’s: The ideology of recycling

The missing R’s: The ideology of recycling and waste management in consumerist culture

– Taryn Bernard

Like many cultural practices, recycling has deep historical and ideological roots. As a modern practice, recycling originated in America in the 1970s when there was growing awareness of environmental issues and a strong uprising of environmentalist activists who later coined the 3 R’s: “reduce, reuse, and recycle”.  In contemporary globalised and consumerist society, recycling is framed as a way to protect the environment, a “moral” activity, but also a trendy one – a middle-class and elitist activity, ranked high on the “hip hierarchy” along with purchasing organic products from weekend farmers’ markets. Deconstructing the act of recycling might look like this: search out the arrowed triangle, and once the stamped product has been consumed, sort through your waste and throw it in the appropriate bag for collection. But the activities of “searching” and “sorting” don’t seem to curb production, nor do they prompt us to reduce consumption, two variables fundamental to the neoliberal capitalist system, to the continued dominance of big businesses and to environmental degradation. The “recyclable” stamp is not only a contemporary sign, but a modern myth so steeped in cultural ideologies and practices that it’s hard for us to recognise it as such.

According to Barthes, the sign derives its value from its surrounding context. On a macro-level, we understand the sign in a consumerist context. On a micro-level, individual instances of the sign contextualise and frame our interpretation of it. When situated on a consumable product, the recycling sign tells us “this company cares”. When visible in their corporate social responsibility report, the company says “we are doing good things” and “the corporate citizen is a moral citizen.” Cloaked in the green robe of sustainable development, neoliberal corporations appropriate environmental discourse of the 70s and declare their love for the environment, while simultaneously whispering “most profit for the least cost”. Companies clean up the environment, engage in “waste management projects”, because dirt and waste bottleneck their economic growth, not because they want greener pastures, and this leads to the production of more waste. The politics and rhetoric of recycling merely mask the problems of overproduction, overconsumption and resource-depletion, all of which can be addressed by the first two R’s – reduce and reuse –  and by halting the production and consumption process, rather than simply disguising negative externalities with modern recycling processes.

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Conspicuous Destruction

– Dr Megan Jones

When we think of waste, we imagine opportunities missed, lives ruined or environments polluted. “What a waste” we say, and we mean despair, destruction, desolation. Eliot’s clean, austere lines, the “vacant lots” of the dying city, shape our words in the throat. Rarely does waste conjure economies of affect or resilience, or the possibilities of forging counter-publics. For Achille Mbembe, the neo-liberal pursuits of post-apartheid South Africa have exacerbated the production of poor bodies as socially elided detritus, set adrift in no-man’s lands between the spectacle of consumption and rigorously defended privatization. In a landscape of excess —excess wealth, excess consumerism, excess security— the poor are rendered admissible, and so they remain below the horizon of social visibility. But what are the ways in which we think about waste as a means of articulation? How might waste offer opportunities to pressurise the distribution of wealth and well-being in South Africa and beyond?

I want to linger briefly on recent images of waste surfacing in urban communities in Mumbai and Johannesburg. Go to Youtube and watch Nandos’ recent ads, and you’ll see how the company has appropriated the stylings of izikhothane, a youth practice emerging from Johannesburg’s townships. Izikhothane’s participants, mostly men, burn expensive clothes and designer goods in a display of apparent indifference to the commodity. The idea behind this performance of wastefulness is that one has so much, one needs nothing—we might call it conspicuous destruction. Responses in the media and public discourse online have been scandalised; how dare people with so little behave in this way. What the responses miss is how practices like izikhothane push for a presence in the public domain and resist invisibility. Is there is a limit to which modes of consumption are able to provide their practitioners with agency? Yes, of course. Its appropriation by Nandos signals exactly the triumph of exchange value. Burning clothes and cars will not shift structures of power and privilege. Nonetheless, the reaching for presence that izikhothane attempts has rich symbolic and psychic value.

Refuse and Refuge

Published last year, Katherine Boo’s book Behind the Beautiful Forevers charts the difficulties endured by the Hussain family in the slum of Annawadi, located next to Mumbai’s expanding international airport.  The airport is a sleek symbol of India’s economic successes; the inhabitants of Annawadi survive by picking through its piles of discarded junk. On one level, the book is about the vast inequalities shaping the city’s spaces and the social and political injustices this often produces. Yet there is another facet to these lives lived through and in waste. The focaliser of the book is the Hussain’s eldest son, Abdul, who makes a living as a collector and seller of waste. Let’s not sentimentalise: Abdul dreams of escape from the slum’s desperate conditions – filth, disease, crowding, persecution by the authorities. But waste is also the site of his resilience and aspiration, is a cage and a refuge. Thus Boo asks us to read the inhabitants of Annawadi not only as victims but also as actors, and the waste-filled landscapes of their homes as home.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers